I did a review of the late Eqbal Ahmad’s latest book, “Between Past and Future”, which I hope is widely read. Along with the book, I reviewed a film on Kashmir, “Crossing the Lines”, which I hope is widely watched. Eqbal Ahmad was a very very sharp commentator and activist. He noted a phenomenon in a previous book of interviews with David Barsamian, “Confronting Empire”, that I think may have changed, thanks to the patient work of the right-wing movement in the US (as described in Thomas Frank’s book “What’s the Matter with Kansas”). It is a very important phenomenon — a lot hinges on whether it remains true today.
On page 99 of “Confronting Empire”, in an exchange on “terrorism” (one aspect about Ahmad’s work where he is most perceptive), Barsamian quotes someone saying the war on terror will be permanent (we’ve heard that one more recently, haven’t we), Ahmad replies:
Nothing in history has been permanent. Frankly, I don’t think American power is permanent… America is a troubled country, for too many reasons. One is that its economic capabilities do not harmonize with its military capabilities. The second is that its ruling class’s will to dominate is not quite shared by its people’s will to dominate…
The evidence is massive. If the American people had a will to dominate the world, they would have lynched Bill Clinton at the first sign of his hanky-panky in the White House. I’ll tell you why. Britain had a will to dominate in the 18th and 19th centuries. Britain punished for very small crimes its most famous empire builders. Robert Clive was impeached and Warren Hastings was impeached, because an imperial society instinctively knows that it will not command respect on a global scale unless it shows uprightness at home… That’s why imperial countries very often tended to be puritanical societies. The people of America don’t want Clinton to resign because they think he’s been a good president. They can separate his being commander-in-chief from his personal behavior. This is not a people with a will to rule. This is a people with a will to violence, yes, but not a will to dominate.
You can take other examples. A will to dominate means a willingness to sacrifice, to pay the price of it. The American public does not want American boys dying. So, in Somalia, when American Marines were attacked, the United States pulled out and sent in Pakistanis to do their dirty work and clean up the mess. They don’t want to send troops abroad. They don’t want to die in foreign lands. That is, they don’t want to pay the price of power abroad, which they were willing to do during much of the Cold War. This changes after Vietnam. In that sense, George Bush notwithstanding, the “Vietnam syndrome” is very much alive.
Here’s the thing. Clinton’s ‘hanky panky’ did become the focus of a great deal of moral outrage (that the moral outrage is entirely hypocritical, as it is in all puritanical societies, is quite irrelevant). It took a while to get going, but the right still gets tremendous mileage out of it. The Iraq war, and the real possibility that Bush could win the elections in a week, shows that a large segment of US society is willing to risk its own children (well, probably more like other people’s children) in order to dominate other people’s countries and other peoples. 9/11 played a role in all this, of course. But so did, it bears repeating, the power of the right-wing fundamentalist movement in the United States. That movement makes US society unique in various ways. For example, even though Clinton’s ‘hanky panky’ did become the focus of moral outrage, the ‘hanky panky’ of high profile members of the right wing movement and their leaders, and the generally low moral level of the Bush family and their crowd in financial matters, doesn’t seem to deter the right wing grassroots at all.
I think it’s still too early to say whether or not the will to dominate will prevail over “Vietnam syndrome” with this Iraq war. It’s also too early to say whether or not the US will be able to resolve the disconnect between its military and economic power. But I think it’s less clear than when Eqbal Ahmad made the statements in the 1990s.